Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beguiled - Chapter 1

(Bethany House March 1, 2007)

Something wasn't right. Rylee Monroe unclipped the leash from Romeo's collar, then stood still in the quiet kitchen, all senses alert.

The toy schnauzer clicked across the wooden floor and lapped up water from his bowl, sloshing it over the sides in his enthusiasm. Not a speck of dust touched the slick black granite countertops. An assortment of spoons, ladles, and spatulas hung above the chrome- plated gas stove. Above that, a row of dinner, salad, and dessert plates rested between vertical dowels.

From the kitchen, she could see the sunken sitting room and the archway opening into the dining room. White sheers hung in front of two bay windows, foiling the sun's effort to fade the richly upholstered furniture. No cushion had been disturbed. Nothing was out of place.

She slowly closed the back door, turning the knob to reduce any noise she might make. Romeo looked up from his bowl, water dripping off his wet cheeks. Squatting down, she quietly patted her thigh.

He trotted over, tail wagging a mile a minute.

"Listen," she whispered, wiping his chin and picking him up. "You hear anything?"

Outside, a tour bus struggled to accelerate. Distant sounds of electric saws, chisels, and hammers kept up a continual din. All normal sounds for the historic district of Charleston.

The floorboards above her squeaked under the weight of a footstep.

She stiffened. Had Karl come back to get something? She checked her watch. Ten o'clock. Too late to return for a forgotten item. Too early to quit for the day.

Romeo began to squirm. She tiptoed to the laundry room and set him behind the doggie gate. He immediately began to whine.

"Shhhh." She gently held his mouth closed. "I'll be right back."

She glanced at the set of kitchen knives resting in a wooden block. The temptation to grab one was strong, but what if it was Karl? What would he think if he caught his new dogwalker creeping up the stairs with a butcher knife in her hand?

She kept to the edge of each step, where the wood had less give. Sweat beaded her hands, playing havoc with her grip on the railing. At the halfway landing, she paused, her own breathing loud in her ears.

The hum from outside no longer reached her.

A creak from behind.

She spun around. A bust of Henry Timrod, the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, stared back at her. She glanced down the stairs.

The massive front door with beveled-glass sidelights remained bolted and chained.

Taking a deep breath, she continued up, finally stepping onto the oriental rug gracing the second-story landing. The door to her right stood open. The foot of the four-poster bed and carved hope chest were visible and undisturbed.

The door to her left was closed. She frowned, wondering if it was always closed. She'd never had reason to go upstairs. In spite of how long she'd known the family, the Sebastians were new clients, and it was too soon for her to know what was normal and what wasn't.

A shadow passed below the door.

Her heart tripped.

Then she forced herself to calm. She was going to feel awfully silly when that door opened and it was Karl.

The floor creaked again.

"Hello?" she said.

The shadow stilled, stopping in the center of the doorway.


A scrambling from inside.

She touched her throat. What if he had a woman in there? Karl was unmarried. In his early thirties. And GQ-gorgeous.

Heat crept up her neck. "Karl? It's me, Rylee. I don't mean to be a bother. I just thought I heard something and wanted to be sure everything's okay. Is everything okay in there?"

A whoosh. A clatter. A grunt.

Her pulse picked up again. He should have answered by now.

"Karl? I'm coming in." She placed her hand on the knob, the brass cool to her sweaty palm. Slowly, slowly she turned the handle and peeked inside.

The bedroom stood immaculate. Another four-poster bed. A kentia palm tree. A mahogany chest of drawers. A tall urn.

She pushed the door the rest of the way open. Nothing.

With a crash, one end of the window's curtain rod swung down.

She whirled around, her heart slamming in her chest. A man's leg, tangled in gold brocade curtain, protruded from the window. He yanked the limb free, pulling the rod the rest of the way down.

Screaming, she bolted, banging the doorframe on her way out.

The noise set Romeo off. His loud, incessant yipping echoed through the kitchen like a homing beacon.

She scrambled down the stairs, swung around the landing, and rushed to the kitchen phone. Jumping over the dog fence and into the laundry room with Romeo, she slammed the door shut, then punched 9-1-1.

"Please! There's a burglar! He's outside on the second-story balcony. Hurry!"

The operator verified her location and kept Rylee on the line and talking.

Romeo stood with ears and tail up, barking so loudly she couldn't hear a thing.

The shakes took hold. Her legs quaked. Her arms trembled. The phone slipped from her hands twice.

She slid down the door and onto the floor. "Yes, yes. I'm fine. Just hurry."

The questions and reassurances continued for a few minutes until a deep male voice rang out from the kitchen. "Miss Monroe?"

"Yes! In here." She cracked the door open.

The uniformed man looked to be in his fifties but plenty robust. "You say you saw a prowler, ma'am?"

She nodded. "Upstairs. First door to the left. He was crawling out the window."

He pushed a button on the walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder, dropped his voice an octave, and mumbled something indecipherable into it.

He looked at her. "Close that door and don't come out until I return for you."

Swallowing, she did as instructed. The shakes were worse now. Had the robber managed to get untangled and off the balcony? What if he was still there? What if he was younger and stronger than the officer? What if he had a gun and got the first shot off?

She'd be a sitting duck.

Romeo crawled into her lap, sensing her distress. She cuddled him close, drawing comfort from him. Most schnauzers had bobbed tails and ears and shaved bodies. Not Romeo. For whatever reason, he'd never been clipped. His ears and tail, along with the rest of his coat, were long, shaggy, and adorable. She'd fallen in love with him on sight.

She gave his head a kiss. Maybe that's why they named him Romeo.

Picking up the phone she'd had earlier, she speed dialed Karl at the law offices of Sebastian, Lynch & Orton. "Rylee Monroe calling. Would you tell Karl it's an emergency, please?"

Innocuous elevator music filled her ear before Karl picked up.

"Rylee? What's happened?"

"There's been an intruder."

"At the house?" he exclaimed. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. The police are here now."

Someone knocked on the laundry room door. "Officer Quince here. You can come out now."

She scrambled to her feet. "I'll call you back, Karl."

"No need," he said. "I'm on my way."

Cracking the door, she peered around it. "Did you catch him?"

"He's long gone, ma'am."

Unhitching the doggie gate, she and Romeo joined him in the kitchen.

The officer listened to her story, making occasional notes as she spoke. "So you didn't get a good look at him?"

"No, sir."

"White, black, Hispanic?"

"I couldn't really tell. All I saw was that leg and boot trying to kick free of the curtain."

"Is anything missing?"

"I don't know. This isn't my house."

He looked up. "Not your house?"

"No. I'm the dogwalker. The house belongs to Grant and Amelia Sebastian."

"Have you called them?"

"They're on their honeymoon. I'm walking the dog while they're gone. But Mr. Sebastian's son lives here, too. He's on his way now."

She gave the officer the last of her personal information just as Karl pushed open the back door, a lock of sun-kissed blond hair falling over eyebrows pale to the point of translucence.

He ran his gaze up and down her. "Are you all right? Did he hurt you?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine."

"You sounded pretty shaken on the phone." A well-tailored tan jacket nipped around his graceful frame, his white linen shirt lay open at the collar. His jeans gave the look a relaxed charm. Not exactly the attire she'd expect of a law-firm associate—she'd never seen his father in anything but suits and ties—but Karl knew how to wear his clothes.

"I interrupted him while he was in one of the bedrooms upstairs."

He sucked in his breath. "Which bedroom?"

"Second floor, the one on the left."

A pained look crossed his face. "That's my bedroom."

With the officer leading the way, the three of them headed upstairs. Now that there wasn't a burglar to distract her, Rylee got a good look at the room. Not what she would have expected from a single man in his thirties. In spite of herself, she was impressed.

The crystal chandelier would have been better suited for a formal dining room. His bed was neatly made. Instead of clothing strewn all over the floor, a single linen jacket hung on an antique wooden valet with a pair of polished shoes underneath. A flat-screen tv atop the chest of drawers angled toward his four-poster. A dog-eared issue of the Robb Report and a DVD lay next to an urn.

She squinted, then smiled. Season Two of Heroes. She loved that show.

On the bedside table rested an iPod, a James Patterson paperback, and three remote controls, all neatly arranged.

Karl scanned the room, went into the bathroom, came back out, and then disappeared inside his closet. "My jewelry casket!"

"Jewelry casket?" The officer joined Karl. Following behind, Rylee noted the empty spot on the low shelf above his slacks.

Karl clamped a hand over his mouth, shaking his head. "It's nothing."

"You sure about that?"

"Karl," Rylee said. "What is it?"

"If he took something, sir, we really need to know about it."

Karl looked at them both, then surrendered with a shrug. "Yeah, it's missing. A kind of shrine-looking jewelry box." He gestured with his hands. "It has all these hand-painted panels and finials that look like Roman statues. Dates to the mid-1800s. Been in our family for years."

"Was the jewelry inside it worth much?"

His eyes wide with distress, he strode out of the closet. "No."

The officer nodded. "Then it was the actual, um, casket that was valuable?"

He tunneled a hand through his hair. "To me, it was. But it's not near as valuable as that amphora." He indicated the urn Rylee had seen earlier. "Why couldn't he have taken that?"

"How much is this urn worth?" Quince asked.

Karl paced. "Twenty-five thousand? Thirty? I'd have to check to be certain."

Rylee swung her attention back to the urn. It was about a footand- a-half tall, had a narrow neck and two handles. Engraved silhouettes of male and female figures decorated its bowl. She'd seen something just like it at Hobby Lobby last week.

"And the jewelry box?" the officer asked. "What's your best guess there?"

Karl rubbed his forehead. "I really couldn't say for sure. Not much, though. Somewhere in the one to two thousand dollar range?"

Rylee frowned. Two thousand dollars? And he'd have preferred for the robber to have taken the thirty thousand dollar urn?

She wondered if the jewelry box had a sentimental value. Inwardly cringing, she fingered the pearl drop hanging around her neck. It was the only memento she had of her mother's. And no price could be put on that.

"Well, that fits the modus operandi of our Robin Hood burglar," the officer said.

Karl shook his head. "It's not him."

"I'd be willing to bet, sir. This will make the third time he's hit a house south of Broad and left with only one piece—and a piece that wasn't close to being as valuable as some of the other items in the house. We'll know for sure when—if—the piece gets donated to some nonprofit somewhere." He scribbled on his pad. "You sure nothing else is missing?"

Karl blinked, as if he didn't understand the question, his self- assurance suddenly gone.

Rylee moved next to him, touching his sleeve. "Did the box have sentimental value?"

His tanned skin had lost all its color. "Yes," he said softly. "Very much so."

She squeezed his arm. "I'm so sorry."

The officer cleared his throat. "Is anything else missing, Mr. Sebastian?"

Karl opened a few drawers, went back into his closet, and then came out again. "Not that I can see." He stopped at the window. The curtain rod lay at his feet, rich brocade pooling around it like liquid gold. "The guy came in through here?"

"We're not sure. He definitely left through there, though."

Karl nodded.

"Would you mind taking a look at the rest of the house to see if anything looks out of the ordinary?"

"Of course not."

A search of all four stories offered up no further clues.

In the kitchen, the officer shook Karl's hand. "We'll be in touch. In the meanwhile, see if you can locate a picture of that jewelry casket."

"Will do, Officer. Thanks." He closed the door, then turned back to Rylee.

"I'm so sorry, Karl."

"Yeah." He shook himself. "But it's only stuff. You know? It could have been worse. Something could have happened to you. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine."

"I saw you rubbing your shoulder."

She touched her right shoulder. "I ran into the doorframe trying to get out of the bedroom."

He frowned and stepped toward her. "Let me see."

"It's nothing. Really."

He lifted a brow, his eyes more turquoise than blue.

Flustered, she dipped down the side of her summer cardigan.

He brushed her shoulder with his fingers. "Looks like you're going to have a nasty bruise."

He was close. Very close.

She shrugged the sweater into place. "It'll be fine. I hardly even feel it."

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, deepening his laugh lines. "Liar."

She softened. "It's good to see you smile."

She'd had a crush on him for three years. Ever since his father, a longtime friend of her family, had helped sell her house on Folly Beach. Anytime Karl made the society news, she always took note. But she'd never expected him to notice her.

She swallowed. "Well, unless you need anything else, I probably ought to get going."

"You'll be back tonight?"

She glanced at her watch. "Yes. I'll make sure Romeo gets in a good walk and some dinner."

"Tonight, then."

She skirted around him, then darted toward the door.


She turned.

"This yours?" He held up a pink and yellow Vera Bradley messenger bag.

"Yes." She took it and slipped it over her head, careful not to wince when the strap hit her sore shoulder. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

She backed up. "Right. Well. See ya, Karl. See ya, Romeo."

With a quick wave, she stumbled out the door.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Kelly’s Chance - Chapter 1

Kelly’s Chance
Barbour Books; Reprint edition (January 1, 2010)

Chapter 1

Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania

Spring 1891

Kelly McGregor trudged wearily along the towpath, kicking up a cloud of dust with the tips of her worn work boots. A size too small and pinching her toes, they were still preferable to walking barefoot. Besides the fact that the path was dirty, water moccasins from the canal sometimes slithered across the trail. Kelly had been bitten once when she was twelve years old. She shuddered at the memory. . . Papa cutting her foot with a knife, then sucking the venom out. Mama following that up with a poultice of comfrey leaves to take the swelling down, then giving Kelly some willow bark tea for the pain. Ever since that day, Kelly had worn boots while she worked, and even though she could swim quite well, she rarely did so anymore.

As Kelly continued her walk, she glanced over her shoulder and smiled. Sure enough, Herman and Hector were dutifully following, and the rope connected to their harnesses still held taut.

“Good boys,” she called to the mules. “Keep on comin’.”

Kelly knew most mule drivers walked behind their animals in order to keep them going, but Papa’s mules were usually dependable and didn’t need much prodding. Herman, the lead mule, was especially obedient and docile. So Kelly walked in front, or sometimes alongside the team, and they followed with rarely a problem.

Herman and Hector had been pulling Papa’s canal boat since Kelly was eight years old, and she’d been leading them for the last nine years. Six days a week, nine months of the year, sometimes eighteen hours a day, they trudged up and down the towpath that ran alongside the Lehigh Navigation System. The waterway, which included the Lehigh Canal and parts of the Lehigh River, was owned by a Quaker named Josiah White. Due to his religious views, he would not allow anyone working for him to labor on the Sabbath. That was fine with Kelly. She needed at least one day of rest.

“If it weren’t for the boatmen’s children, the canal wouldn’t run a day,” she mumbled. “Little ones who can’t wait to grow up so they can make their own way.”

Until two years ago, Kelly’s older sister, Sarah, had helped with the mules. Then she ran off with Sam Turner, one of the lock tender's boys who lived along their route. Sarah and Sam had been making eyes at each other for some time, and one day shortly after Sarah’s eighteenth birthday, they ran away to¬gether. Several weeks later, Sarah sent the family a letter saying she and Sam were married and living in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Sam had gotten a job at Warren Soapstone, and Sarah was still looking for work. Kelly and her folks hadn’t seen or heard a word from the couple since. Such a shame! She sure did miss that sister of hers.

Kelly moaned as she glanced down at her long, gray cotton skirt, covered with a thick layer of dust. She supposed the sifting dirt was preferable to globs of gritty, slippery mud, which she often encountered in early spring. “Long skirts are such a bother. Sure wish Mama would allow me to wear pants like all the mule boys do.”

In the past when the wind was blowing real hard, Kelly’s skirt billowed, and she hated that. She’d solved the problem by sewing several small stones into the hemline, weighing her skirt down so the wind couldn’t lift it anymore.

Kelly looked over her shoulder again, past the mules. Her gaze came to rest on her father’s flat-roofed, nearly square, wooden boat. They were hauling another load of dark, dirty anthracite coal from the town of Mauch Chunk, the pickup spot, on down to Easton, where it would be delivered.

Kelly’s thoughts returned to her sister, and a knot rose in her throat. She missed Sarah for more than just her help. Sometimes when they’d walked the mules together, Kelly and Sarah had shared their deep¬est desires and secret thoughts. Sarah admitted how much she hated life on the canal. She’d made it clear that she would do about anything to get away from Papa and his harsh, stingy ways.

Kelly groaned inwardly. She understood why Sarah had taken off and was sure her older sister had married Sam just so she could get away from the mundane, difficult life on the Lehigh Navigation Sys¬tem. It didn’t help any that Kelly and Sarah had been forced to work as mule drivers without earning one penny of their own. Some mule drivers earned as much as a dollar per day, but not Kelly and her sister. All the money they should have made went straight into Papa’s pocket, even if Mama and the girls had done more than their share of the work.

In all fairness, Kelly had to admit that, even though he yelled a lot, Papa did take pretty good care of them. He wasn’t like some of the canal boatmen, who drank and gambled whenever they had the chance, wasting away their earnings before the month was half over.

Kelly was nearing her eighteenth birthday, and even though she was forced to work without pay, noth¬ing on earth would make her marry someone simply so she could get away. The idea of marriage was like vinegar in her mouth. From what she’d seen in her own folks’ lives, getting hitched wasn’t so great, any¬way. All Mama ever did was work, and all Papa did was take charge of the boat and yell at his family.

Tears burned in Kelly’s eyes, but she held them in check. “Sure wish I could make enough money to support myself. And I don’t give a hoot nor a holler ’bout findin’ no man to call husband, neither.”

Kelly lifted her chin and began to sing softly, “Hunks-a-go pudding and pieces of pie; my mother gave me when I was knee-high. . . . And if you don’t believe it, just drop in and see—the hunks-a-go pudding my mother gave me.”

The tension in Kelly’s neck muscles eased as she began to relax. Singing the silly canaler’s tune al¬ways made her feel a bit better—especially when she was getting hungry and could have eaten at least three helpings of Mama’s hunks-a-go pudding. The fried batter, made with eggs, milk, and flour, went right well with a slab of roast beef. Just thinking about how good it tasted made Kelly’s mouth water.

Mama would serve supper when they stopped for the night, but that wouldn’t be ’til sundown, several hours from now. When Papa hollered, “Hold up there, girl!” and secured the boat to a tree or near one of the locks, Kelly would have to care for the mules. They always needed to be curried and cleaned, in particular around Herman and Hector’s collars where their sweaty hair often came loose. Kelly never took any chances with the mules, for she didn’t want either of them to get sores or infections that needed to be treated with medicine.

After the grooming was finished each night, Kelly fed the animals and bedded them down in fresh straw spread along the floor in one of the lock stables or in their special compartment on the boat. Only when all that was done could Kelly wash up and sit down to Mama’s hot meal of salt pork and beans or potato and onion soup. Roast beef and hunks-a-go pudding were reserved for a special Sunday dinner when there was more time for cooking.

After supper when all the dishes had been washed, dried, and put away, Kelly read, drew, and sometimes played a game. Mama and Papa amused themselves with an occasional game of checkers, and sometimes they lined up a row of dominoes and competed to see who could acquire the most points. That was fine with Kelly. She much preferred to retire to her bunk in the deck below and draw by candle¬light until her eyes became too heavy to focus. Most often she’d sketch something she’d seen along the canal, but many times her charcoal pictures were of things she’d never seen before. Things she’d read about and could only dream of seeing.

On days like today, when Kelly was dog-eared tired and covered from head to toe with dust, she wished for a couple of strong brothers to take her place as mule driver. It was unfortunate for both Kelly and her folks, but Mama wasn’t capable of having more children. She’d prayed for it; Kelly had heard her do so many times. The good Lord must have thought two daughters were all Amos and Dorrie McGregor needed. God must have decided Kelly could do the work of two sons. Maybe the Lord believed she should learn to be content with being poor, too.

Contentment. Kelly didn’t think she could ever manage to achieve that. Not until she had money in her pockets. She couldn’t help but wonder if God cared about her needs at all.

Herman nuzzled the back of Kelly’s neck, interrupting her musings and nearly knocking her wide-brimmed straw hat to the ground. She shivered and giggled. “What do ya want, ol’ boy? You think I have some carrots for you today? Is that what you’re thinkin’?”

The mule answered with a loud bray, and Hector followed suit.

“All right, you two,” Kelly said, reaching into her roomy apron pocket. “I’ll give ya both a carrot, but you must show your appreciation by pullin’ real good for a few more hours.” She shook her finger. “And I want ya to do it without one word of complaint.”

Another nuzzle with his wet nose, and Kelly knew Herman had agreed to her terms. Now she needed confirmation from Hector.

Mike Cooper didn’t have much use for some of the new-fangled things he was being encouraged to sell in his general store, but this pure white soap that actually floated might be a real good seller—especially to the boatmen, who seemed to have a way of losing bars of soap over the side of their vessels. If Mike offered them a product for cleaning that could easily be seen and would bob like a cork instead of sinking to the bottom of the murky canal, he could have a best-seller that would keep his customers coming back and placing orders for “the incredible soap that floats.”

Becoming a successful businessman might help him pursue his goal of finding a suitable wife. Ever since Pa had died, leaving him to run the store by himself, Mike had felt a terrible ache in his heart. Ma had gone to heaven a few years before Pa, and his two brothers, Alvin and John, had relocated a short time later, planning to start a fishing business off the coast of New Jersey. That left Mike to keep the store going, but it also left him alone, wishing for a helpmate and a brood of children. Mike prayed for this every day. He felt he was perfectly within God’s will to make such a request. After all, in the Book of Genesis, God said it wasn’t good for a man to be alone, so He created Eve to be a helper and to keep Adam company. At twenty-four years old, Mike thought it was past time he settled down with a mate.

Mike’s biggest concern was the fact that there weren’t too many unattached ladies living along the canal. Most of the women who shopped at his store were either married or adolescent girls. One young woman—Sarah McGregor—was the exception, but word had it she’d up and run off with the son of a lock tender from up the canal a ways. Sarah had a younger sister, but the last time Mike saw Kelly, she was only a freckle-faced kid in pigtails.

Then there was Betsy Nelson, daughter of the minister who lived in nearby Walnutport and regularly traveled along the canal in hopes of winning folks to the Lord. Betsy wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t as ugly as the muddy waters in Lehigh Canal, either. Of course, Mike wasn’t nearly as concerned about a woman’s looks as he was with her temperament. Betsy should have been sweet as apple pie, her being a pastor’s daughter and all, but she could cut a body right in two with that sharp tongue of hers. Why, he’d never forget the day Betsy raked old Ross Spivey up one side and down the other for spitting out a wad of tobacco in the middle of one of her daddy’s sermons. By the time she’d finished with Ross, the poor man was down on his knees, begging forgiveness for being so rude.

Mike grabbed a broom from the storage closet, shook his head, and muttered, “A fellow would have to be hard of hearin’ or just plain dumb-witted to put up with the likes of Miss Betsy Nelson. It’s no wonder she’s not married yet.”

He pushed the straw broom across the wooden floor, visualizing with each stroke a beautiful, sweet-spirited woman who’d be more than happy to become his wife. After a few seconds, Mike shook his head and murmured, “I’ll have to wait, that’s all. Wait and keep on prayin’.”

Mike quoted Genesis 2:18, a Bible verse that had become one of his favorites since he’d decided he wanted a wife: “ ‘And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’

“I know the perfect woman is out there somewhere, Lord,” he whispered. “All I need is for You to send her my way, and I can take it from there.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Lady Like Sarah - Chapter 1

A Lady Like Sarah

Thomas Nelson; Original edition (December 22, 2009)

Chapter 1


Vultures signaled trouble ahead.

“Whoa, boy.” Reverend Justin Wells tugged on the reins of his horse, bringing his brown gelding to a standstill.

Adjusting the brim of his dusty felt hat, he narrowed his eyes against the bright afternoon sun and peered across the wide, arid plains. Trees grew directly ahead of him, the first he’d seen since leaving St. Louis five days prior. The graceful, tall sycamores suggested the welcome presence of water, perhaps a stream.

He mopped his damp brow with a kerchief, then lifted his eyes upward. They were vultures, all right. No question about it. The scavengers circled overhead on broad, outstretched wings, scanning the ground in waiting silence.

Something or someone was dying. An animal no doubt. He’d passed his share of buffalo skulls and cattle carcasses in recent days, and each had made him ruminate on dying and the meaning of life.

Born and raised in Boston, he never planned to travel across country, never really had a hankering for adventure. Not like most men he knew. Certainly he never expected to leave his hometown in disgrace.

He reached for his canteen, every muscle in his body protesting. He wasn’t just saddle sore; his back ached from the restless nights spent on the hard, unyielding ground. Sleep, if it came at all, had been fleeting at best and offered little respite from his troubled thoughts.

He pulled off the cork top of his tin canteen and lifted it to his parched lips. Never one to question God’s will in the past, it disturbed him that he questioned it now.


What possible reason could God have for sending him to a rough, untamed town in Texas?

He thought of all the work left undone in Boston. To be separated from the congregation he loved seemed a fate worse than death. Though what choice did he have but to accept God’s will?

Behind him, Moses, his pack mule, made a strange whinnying sound that ended in a loud hee-haw. The short, thick head moved from side to side; the long ears twitched.

Having learned to trust the animal’s instincts, Justin felt a sense of unease. With increased alertness, he rose in his saddle and scanned the area ahead. A movement in the trees caught his attention. A previously unnoticed horse stood in the shade. At first he thought it was a wild mustang that had strayed away from its herd. Upon closer observation, he realized his mistake. This horse was saddled.

He glanced at the still-circling buzzards and a sense of urgency shot through him. “Let’s go, boy.” Digging his heels gently into his gelding’s ribs, he galloped along the trail, kicking up dust behind him.

Moses followed close behind, the pots and pans tied to the mule’s pack clanking like old rusty chains.

Moments later, Justin dismounted, stabbed the ground with a metal picket, and staked his horse. He approached the bay cautiously, his gaze scanning the nearby terrain for its owner.

Tethered to a sapling, the horse pawed the ground and neighed, its long black tail swishing back and forth. Something— a red neckerchief—fluttered from a nearby bush.

Leaving horses and mule behind, he followed a narrow path toward the stream, stopping to pick up the kerchief en route.

Two bodies lay side by side in the grass, and he hurried toward them, searching for signs of life. One man wore a badge on his black vest, identifying him as a U.S. Marshal. The other man, judging by the handcuffs, was his prisoner.

Justin kneeled by the lawman’s side and felt for a pulse. The man’s eyes flickered open and his parched lips quivered. He had been shot. Blood had seeped through his clothes and trickled to the ground.

“Don’t talk,” Justin said. “Save your strength. I’ll get you some water.”

The marshal reached for Justin’s arm. “Promise me—” He coughed. “My prisoner . . . promise—” He spoke in a murmur that was almost drowned out by a sudden gust of wind rippling through the tall prairie grass. “Take . . . to . . . Texas—”

Justin sat back on his heels in surprise. “Texas? You want me to take the prisoner to Texas?”

The lawman nodded slightly and closed his eyes, his breathing labored.

Intent upon getting the marshal water, Justin straightened. A moaning sound, soft as a kitten’s first mew, made him take a closer look at the prisoner. That’s when he saw the man’s foot move.

Dropping down on his knees by the prisoner’s side, Justin leaned over him. “Take it easy, lad.” The prisoner’s face was covered in dust, but he appeared to be a young man, cleanshaven, probably still in his teens. The boy’s youth would probably account for his ill-chosen bright red boots, which looked all the more garish in full sunlight.

“Just stay put.” Justin squeezed the man’s slight shoulder. “I’ll get you something to drink.” There was nothing to be done about the boots.

Returning to his horse, Justin retrieved the canteen tied to his saddle, then hurried to the fast-running stream. Removing the stopper, he dipped the canteen into the cool, clear waters and rushed back to the injured men, chasing away one of the vultures that had landed nearby.

“Here.” Lowering himself onto his knee again, he slid one arm beneath the marshal’s head and lifted the canteen to the man’s swollen lips. The lawman took a sip and then slumped back as if it took all his energy to swallow. His eyes open, he looked worried or distressed, maybe both.

“Tell my . . . f-family—”

Justin tried to reassure him. “You’ll be all right,” he said. He didn’t know anything about bullet wounds. It wasn’t the kind of thing taught at Boston Theological Seminary. Still, he couldn’t just let the man die. There had to be something he could do.

But first things first. He turned to the prisoner. Slipping his hand beneath the young man’s shoulders, he lifted the youth’s head. The man’s wide-brimmed slouch hat was crushed behind him, the leather strap still beneath his smooth chin. Justin pulled the felt hat off and—much to his surprise— long red hair tumbled out of the crown.

Justin froze. Not sure if he could believe his eyes, he blinked and took a closer look. There was no mistake; the prisoner was a woman!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Judas Ride - Chapter 1

The Judas Ride

Tate Publishing (December 8, 2009)

Sonia exploded with such a fierce intensity that it startled Xavier, one of her boyfriends. “You’re always taking me places I don’t want to go to do things I don’t want to do.”

“You’re bleeding! The baby is in trouble. I can’t ignore this! Even if I wanted to pretend everything was all right, I can’t. I gotta think about the baby!” Xavier was visibly torn between doing what is right and what would be most convenient, and finally, what Sonia wanted.

Sonia answered back, as if nothing was wrong with her body bleeding during her pregnancy. “I’m so sick and tired of everything being about the baby! What about me? What about my needs?”

Xavier’s entire body stiffened at her self-centeredness. “What about you? What about you? You selfish, spoiled fool! This is about the baby growing inside you and not about your childish needs! Sit back and shut up while I get you to the clinic.”

“I just want things to go back to the way they were,” Sonia purred with a playful sexiness and great heaviness in her voice.

“Sonia, we’re not going back to the way things were. I can’t go back. I made a commitment to be a man—to be a better man. Things will never be the same again.” Xavier’s shoulders slouched, and his voice trembled as he explained this for the hundredth time to her. He pushed his foot down harder on the gas pedal. The car immediately lurched forward.

Sonia answered back, leaning toward him and attempting to stroke his inner thigh, “They can if you let them. I can make things change…if you know what I mean.”

Xavier picked up her hand as though it had leprosy. “I’m not going back to the way things used to be.” He jerked the car into the next lane and missed side-swiping an old Buick Le Sabre with an ancient, wrinkled, and severely frightened man trying to drive.


At this time of year there's always wind and a cool grayness surrounding the town. The air murmured loneliness. Trees at times seemed like a commodity, and the clean air they provided was even rarer. Plant life has grown into a sense of loss and grieving. The stale air was held captive and trapped between the rows of mountains. This acerbic air was the real killer for the town. But the air was also held hostage by all the large and small buildings that the people selectively inhabit. Either it was too hot or too cold to be outside. It seemed that the people of the town were never satisfied with what it is—instead, they were obsessed with what it should be. It can be heard from anyone in town that if Los Angeles and Sacramento did not have the winds sending all their caustic air, then the town would be a halfway decent place to live.

The people of the town wait for the something to happen to them. Rarely did they take the initiative to create or fabricate their own destinies. They lived behind enclosures, afraid to move, fearful to communicate, and sniffed the air as animals with dilated nostrils searching. According to the townspeople, it was not their fault the town was so caustic—it was the fault of the mountains and the wind, and that was why the air smells so bad. The great denial in this town was one of the many faults that bound them so tightly together.

The townspeople seemed to have the problem that many who lived in small communities have: Are they members of a farming community, oil community or a bedroom community for Los Angeles? Who are they, really? Everyone said they were a big city with a small-town feel. There were countless restaurants and businesses with the word hometown in their names and advertisements. No wonder they were crazy here. The town had not decided if it was big or small, or a farming community, or a business community. In fact, the town was even called the “Appalachia of the West Coast,” and they were called Okies but lived in the state of California, not Oklahoma.

The town was built in a desert, all of the street names, school names, and housing subdivisions had some reference to water or to a cool climate.

Sonia and Xavier were experts in attributing fault to someone else for their own inadequacies. Their way of accepting accountability was more along the lines of assigning fault by omission.

The Clinica Vista on Cerritos Road, or Surreal Road, as some affectionately refer to the six-lane highway, was a sad little fake adobe building with faded posters in the windows. This road was home to clinics, casinos, and ladies of the night, all of which had the power and desire to suck the life right out of any person. The cars, trucks, and buses rumbled past in a slow, methodical rhythm, taking people to places they did not want to go, for reasons they could not explain. The huge, half-arch sign that stretched itself to its limit across Cerritos Road proclaimed, Welcome. For years this sign had found safe harbor in the parking lot of the clinic but now had been moved to a side street and rested near the bar and restaurant aptly named The Crystal Place. This was a better location for the sign, but the clinic seemed to be missing its anchor. The cement blocks left looked like they were naked useless gray buoys attached to the shores of cement from the clinic’s parking lot.

Inside the clinic, magazines in both English and Spanish were tossed haphazardly on chairs. Only the baby books were left on the floor. The light was dim, creating a safe and lazy feeling. The glass aquarium with a dim green light was full of colorful fish, and these fish were the only living creatures waiting in the room. A small radio, with flashing lights instead of numbers, rested on the entry counter playing AM music of early Aretha Franklin. The beating of the music signaled to the clients that they were never alone.

Sonia and Xavier were inside a small examination room. The room needed another coat of paint to cover the already numerous patches of peeling paint of faded green, blue, and yellow over the now deep burgundy. The wall that had the examination table attached to it was full of names, numbers, and graffiti. On the ceiling were old and worn posters of fields of flowers and mountains. One could tell the posters had been brightly colored at one time. Polaroid baby pictures adorned the wall that shared the doorway and silently covered the light switch. The other wall, with the small slice of a window, had children’s books and racks of magazines—some new but mostly old.

Even with all the clutter, the room had a warm, comfortable feeling. Xavier was worried. Sonia’s attitude seemed to be one of disinterest to the point of absurdity. Sonia and Xavier were waiting for the outcome of the tests that Sonia took a week earlier. Both shared thoughts of lost loves and defunct dreams. Is the baby in trouble? Are there other major complications? The waiting was similar to the fear of the boogey man living under the bed, always waiting with fang and claw for just the right moment to pounce and take away all security.

Sonia said with a flippant tone in her soft, childlike voice, “You know that Vader would kill you if he knew you were here with me right now.”

Xavier fired back without hesitation, “Vader is a lot of talk.”

“You don’t understand. Vader really does hurt people… I’ve seen him do it,” Sonia whispered and placed her hand over her stomach.

Xavier pleaded with her as if from a rehearsed script,“Then why do you stay with him? It can’t be because he’s the father of the baby! You said I was! I’ve been a better man to that kid in your belly in the last few months than he ever could be!” Xavier looked at the posters on the wall as if searching for an omen. “Sonia, you said I was the father! Right?” He looked at Sonia, and she looked away, and tears rolled down her cheeks. He whispered, “I’m not?”

Sonia seemed to be talking to convince herself, “I know he loves me! Vader can be good. Life has just been hard on him.”

Xavier baffled at her response but answered as though he was John Wayne. “Even a blind man could see how much I love you.”

“What? You’ve been watching your cowboy movies again, haven’t you? You and that Pastor Manny! You’re trying to sound like that one old cowboy, aren’t you?” It seemed Sonia’s voice was softer, without an edge, and she was smiling.

Xavier seemed upset from her tirade about Vader. “You crazy little fool! Hard on him? Hard on him? We come from the same place. You don’t see me dealing drugs and slicing up anyone I don’t happen to like. I finished school and I’m working at the hospital. I got possibilities, I got skills, and I got a plan to get out of here. I want you to go with me.”

Ah, cowboy and ride into the sunset?” Sonia answered playfully.

Xavier’s body became taut and his voice strained. “Sometimes I would like to blast you to the moon.”

“That doesn’t sound like something a cowboy would do. But you won’t because…” Sonia didn’t finish her sentence because Xavier grabbed her and pulled her toward him. His feelings triggered thoughts of guilt, and it was this guilt that in turn brought his thoughts to Pastor Manny.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Last Day - Chapter 1 Excerpt

The Last Day

Steerforth; 1 edition (September 1, 2009)


James Landis

The Isles of Shoals
I meet Jesus on the day I get home from the war. I’m on the beach, but I don’t know how I got here. My mind is as dark as the night.

I walk, but only back and forth. New Hampshire has a tiny coast-line. A lot of it is rock, sent down from Maine when God made the Earth, to keep us on our toes down here. I walk where the sand is wet and hard and cold. It holds my toes, and my toes hold it. In the desert, where I fought, the sand was inhospitable.

The darkness is a gift. I would tell my little baby girl when she woke up in the middle of the night, “Dodie, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I’ve always loved the dark. In the dark, you light up in-side. Things become clearer the darker it is.

Out here, on the beach, I’m alone. I always have been. Or as long as I can remember. As long as since my mother died.

I’d come here in the middle of the night to find myself and to get away from others. The beach is a place of memories. When you come here, you take your life with you. When you go other places, like the city or the desert, you leave your life behind.

I remember everything.

Except how I got here.

I spend the whole night on the beach. But when the sun’s faint light begins to bend around the Earth, I see him.

Out there, ten miles out in the ocean, are the Isles of Shoals. There are nine of them. On the clearest day you can see five at most. They sit like flat gray stones on the skin of the water. If it weren’t for them, your eyes would disappear into the horizon.

I’ve never been to the Shoals. I’m not a sailor. I’m a soldier. I’ve been content to stand here looking out at them. When there’s haze or fog, or night has set in, I imagine them. They’re always there for me. They make the ocean safe.

They sit off to the east, of course. New Englanders are always looking east. To where we came from. To where we go to fight for freedom. From this coast, the only coast I know, the sun always rises behind the Shoals. Its first light brings them up out of the dark-ness of the ocean. One by one they begin to glow.

There, coming toward me, out of the light, is a man. He seems to step on the islands one by one, the way I would cross the slippery stones of the Swift River by the Kancamagus Highway up north to try to reach my father.

Behind the man a faint curtain of light rises to the sky out of the ocean. He wears the light like a robe, though I see he’s dressed like me. Jeans and a T-shirt, no shoes. And that he’s older than I am, a lot older, maybe midthirties.

He walks right toward me. He walks right into my eyes.

In the war, we were taught to be suspicious of strangers. That’s what they called it: suspicious. What they meant was fearful: we were taught to be afraid of strangers.

But I’m not afraid of this man. I’m home now. I still don’t know how I got here. But I feel that nothing, and no one, can hurt me.

Still, I want to be alone. I’m thinking, How come on an empty beach if one person puts his chair down and another person arrives, he puts his chair down right near the first person?

He comes right up to me.

“I know you want to be alone, Warren,” he says.

“Do I know you?” I ask.

“You do now,” he says.

“Well, you don’t know me,” I say. “Anyone who knows me knows I don’t call myself Warren. Nobody calls me Warren.”

“I do,” he says.

“Fine,” I say. “Call me Warren. Who are you?”

“Will you believe me if I tell you?”

“How do I know?”

He laughs. “That’s just the right answer.”

I don’t know what he means by that. But I’m flattered.

And then I know.

It’s Jesus.

“My name is Raphael,” he says.

“Yeah, right.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Love Finds You in Holiday, Florida - Prologue and Chapter 1

Love Finds You in Holiday, Florida

Summerside Press (November 1, 2009)


Cassie rounded the curve of the street and pulled into the driveway, and there they were! Those horrible, neon-pink flamingos, grinning at her from beneath the palm tree in the front yard. Just that morning, she’d deposited them in the trash receptacle, hoping that would be the end of them. Though something told her she would never be rid of them.

Oh, what a thought!

As she climbed out of the car and stalked toward them, the horror of it buzzed around her like a swarm of gnats. The picture was a vivid one: sitting on the back deck in her old age, sipping one of those terrible Southern beverages Zan was always experimenting with, her silver hair standing on end and frizzy from the Florida humidity. And poking out from beneath the dock…or peering at her from around the side of the house…or possibly standing tall in one of the large flowering plants…those eyes. Those gawking black eyes, just staring back at her, mocking her with their presence.

Cassie yanked the first one out of the ground, where its hard plastic spike anchored it to the front yard, and she tossed it on the grass behind her. Just as she wrapped both hands around the beak of the second one, Zan’s laughter taunted her from across the street.

She turned her head slowly toward him, narrowed her eyes, and stared him down, the distance between them bridged by a look her husband had come to know all too well.

“Hi, baby,” he called out to her, grinning as maniacally as those flamingos he loved so much. “Want some help carrying in the groceries?”

Lounging on the front step of Millicent’s porch with his faithful dog, Sophie, at his side, Zan could surely be spotted from the space shuttle in that colorful Hawaiian-print shirt. He waved his arms at her, and the old woman in the rocking chair began to wave as well.

“Hello, Cassie!”

Cassie planted both feet and faced him, with her hands on her hips. “Alexander Constantine, I won’t have these horrible things displayed in the front yard. What will the neighbors think of us?”

“Ah, come on, Mac. They’ll think we’re kitschy. Don’t you want to be known as kitschy?”

“I certainly do not.”

And with that, she turned her back on him and pulled hard on the beak of the second flamingo—so hard, in fact, that she fell right on her fanny when the bird’s spike broke free of the ground.

Zan jogged across the street, laughing the whole way, with Sophie trotting at his heels and pitching out happy little fragmented barks as if they were playing a wonderful new game.

Zan reached her in the next minute. “Come on, Mac. Have a heart. When in Holiday, do as the Holidaens do.”

Cassie leaned back into the grass on both elbows and looked up at him, taking in that horrible shirt, the shorts to his knees, and the unmistakable bright blue rubber flip-flops.

“I think you’re Holidaen enough for the both of us,” she remarked. “What were you conspiring with Millicent about?”

“You know she’s my favorite girl after you, Deb, and Sophie.”

“Yes, I do, and I’m not sure about the order we place, either,” she said, glancing at the orange-and-golden-haired collie standing over her. Sophie wiggled her big ears that flopped over at the tips and wagged her large plumed tail at some hilarity only dogs and her husband could sense. “So what were you charming out of Millicent this time, Zan? A recipe for a kiwi mint julep? Pink lemonade with pineapple chunks?”

Zan grinned as he stood over her, and he reached out for her hands. He planted a kiss on each one and then pulled her to her feet.

“Please let me toss the birds in the trash, Zan.”

“If you must.”


“Toss away, Mac.”

Cassie narrowed her eyes and stared him down. It was almost too easy. But she wasn’t going to pass up a golden opportunity if, by some miracle, he was feeling charitable about her animosity for those horrible pink flamingos-on-a-stick.

“Thank you,” she said.

A s she bent over to pick them up, Zan smacked her on the tush.
“Sophie and I will unload the car,” he told her, before waving his arms over his head at Millicent. “Catch you later, Millie!”

“Not if I see you first,” she teased.

Chapter One

4 ACROSS: Neat; tidy; organized

“I know you, Mom, and I wanted to talk to you before you started the whole house decorating thing.”

Cassie tapped the handset and turned serious. “What whole house decorating thing? Debra, I find it laughable that you think I’m so predictable.”

“Oh, come on.” Debra chuckled from the other end of the phone line. “Tell me you haven’t already gone up into the attic and pulled out the boxes of ornaments and garland, or that you haven’t been sitting at the kitchen table making your list for Christmas Eve dinner.”

Cassie set her coffee cup on the table with a thump and brushed aside the spiral notebook in front of her.

“I’m sorry, Mom. Zach is one of the wise men in the church play, and Jake is going to his seventh-grade dance with that little blond girl he’s had a crush on since the third grade. I just can’t make them miss any of it. Why don’t you come here for Christmas instead? You could see the play, and we could go shopping at the new outlet mall.”

Cassie smiled. “I’ve been wondering about doing something different this year anyway. Like maybe going down to the house in Holiday.”

Debra cackled. “Are you serious?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Well, Daddy talked about going down there for Christmas every year since I can remember, and you wouldn’t hear of spending the holiday in 80-degree weather.”

“Well, he loved to wear those horrible shorts when he went down to Florida,” Cassie explained, tucking her hair behind her ear. “I couldn’t spend the Christmas holiday with your father walking around in those plaid Bermuda shorts.”

“I can still hear him trying to talk you into it.” Debra chuckled. In her gravelly Zan impersonation, she added, “ ‘Come on, Mac. Just one Christmas out of all the others that we’ll spend in Boston.’ ”

Debra’s laughter was lyrical, and Cassie’s hand floated to her heart as a mist of tears glazed her eyes. With a sniff, she fought them back. Zan had called her Mac since the time they first met. She was Cassie MacLean then, but the only time he ever called her by her given name was on the morning they’d recited their wedding vows and then once each year on their anniversary. The rest of their lives, she was just Mac. She’d almost forgotten, but Debra’s casual reference to the nickname brought Zan flooding back to her.

“I’ve been thinking about selling the Florida house anyway. This will give me time to get it ready.”

“Selling it? Really?”

“Debra Constantine Rudolph, don’t you give me that weepy reaction to selling the Holiday house after all the years that have passed since you’ve been there.”

“I know, I just...” She trailed off, and Cassie smiled.

“I just, too. But it’s not practical. None of us ever go down there, honey, and the upkeep on a three-bedroom house in Florida that we never use anymore is just ridiculous. Your father was the one who really loved it anyway. I never shared his vision of walking the golf course on Christmas Eve or of draping colored twinkle lights on those awful plastic flamingos he put in the yard.”

“He was a character,” Debra commented.

“Yes, he was.”

“So you aren’t too heartbroken that we won’t be coming for Christmas, then?”

“Don’t be silly. You have your own family now, honey. You’ll make your own traditions. It’s the circle of life.”

Hakuna matata?” Debra laughed. “That’s very Lion King of you, Mom.”

“Besides, I’ve hardly given any thought to the holidays yet.”

“Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Cassie set the handset on the table and leaned back against the metal scrollwork of the dinette chair. Sophie pattered across the kitchen floor with a section of silver Christmas tree garland in her mouth, dragging about three feet of it behind her. When she reached Cassie, she dropped the garland and sighed as she planted her chin on Cassie’s knee.

“Thanks for understanding, Soph.”

With another sigh, Cassie glanced down the hall at the traffic jam of cardboard boxes overflowing with Christmas decorations. She’d been in the process of sorting tree lights from outdoor strands when Debra had called.

I’m absolutely humdrum, she thought, snagging a quick glimpse of the notebook with an inward groan. I’m just as predictable as they come!

She looked down at the list.

Roasted turkey—at least twenty pounds
Chestnut stuffing—leave out the celery for Jake
Candied yams—get marshmallows for Zach
Green bean and mushroom casserole—will the kids eat pearl onions now?
She hadn’t had time to complete it before Debra had called and accused her of making it. Cassie drew a large X across the page and turned the notebook facedown on the table.

As she tucked the lights and garland back into their boxes and sealed the flaps, Cassie counted down the days until Christmas on an invisible calendar before her. With almost three weeks stretched out between lunch with Rachel that afternoon and a lonely Christmas dinner, Cassie began to devise a plan.

A bold and unpredictable plan. Unpredictable was going to be the name of the game now. No more humdrum for this woman!

By the time Cassie met up with her best friend, Rachel, at the restaurant two hours later, she’d already made plane reservations, reserved a rental car, and made an appointment with Tameka, the lovely real estate agent she and Zan had gotten to know in Holiday. She’d sold them the house, and they’d had dinner a few times with Tameka and her husband, James.

“Are you ser–i–ous?” Rachel enunciated.

Cassie emptied a packet of sweetener into her coffee and stirred it with an ornate silver spoon as she grinned at her friend across the table.

“I’m serious.”

“You’re going to Florida for Christmas.”

“Well,” she said, tapping the spoon against the side of the cup and placing it on the saucer, “I’m going to Holiday to get the house ready to go on the market. That shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks. I should finish just in time to spend one Christmas there like Zan always wanted to, say good-bye to the house and all its memories, and come back to Boston just after the new year.” “You’re serious.”

“Yes!” Cassie exclaimed, nodding her head at Rachel. “I’m serious, already.”

“I’m sorry, I just—” Rachel pushed her halo of ash blond curls back from her face and blinked her turquoise blue eyes at Cassie.

“Do you think you’re ready for this, Cass?”

Cassie reached across the table and took her friend’s hand between her own. “He’s been gone over a year now, Rach. I think I’d better be ready, don’t you?”

“There’s no clock timing you on this. You’ll be ready when you’re ready.”

Cassie wanted to reassure her friend. She wanted to declare that the time had indeed come, that she was more than…

Well, there was something to be said for stepping out in faith and pretending she was ready, wasn’t there? Letting go of Zan and their life together, and moving forward with this new phase, was just not something she could plan out like the rest of the details she was so adept at organizing. And Cassie was a little out of her element there since she felt she could always depend on a good plan when nothing else in life was certain.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, remembering the folded sheet of paper in her purse. “Look what I found.”

She dug into her bag, pulled out the paper, smoothed the creases, and laid the page flat on the table between them.

“It’s the crossword puzzle Zan gave me on our anniversary, just before he…” Their eyes met, and Rachel cocked her head slightly and tried to smile at her. “You know.”

“He was so good at that,” Rachel commented. “I’ll bet he made as much money selling his crossword puzzles as he did at teaching English lit.”

“Not quite,” Cassie replied. “But he sure did love to dream them up. Crossword puzzles, word jumbles, searches…Zan just loved words.”
“I always thought it was so romantic the way he would give them to you every year on your anniversary,” Rachel said on a sigh. “And they’d always describe the wonderful things he saw in you. Hey, let’s do it together. Do you want to?”

“I thought I’d take it down to Florida with me and work it there. But we could start it.” She looked over the clue list and landed on one. “What’s a seven-letter word for neat, tidy, and organized?”

Rachel paused and then grinned. “Cassie?”

“That’s six letters.”

Just once, she would have loved to come across a clue for a different type of Cassie.




“Orderly,” Rachel blurted. “The seven-letter word for neat and organized. It’s orderly.”

Orderly. Well, that figures.

Cassie’s spirits deflated. She folded up the puzzle and placed it back into the front pocket of her purse.

“I was Christmas shopping on my lunch hour the other day,” she said. “I came across the neatest little gift that I thought about getting for Debra, and now I find myself wishing I’d gotten it for myself.”

“What was it?”

“It’s called a ‘Surprise Yourself ’ box. Have you heard of it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s a beautiful little cut-crystal box with a hinged lid,” she explained. “Inside are 365 cards, one for each day of the year. On the front is a scripture verse. And on the back is an instruction for that day. I think it’s about applying the Word to your everyday life because it will say something like, ‘Visit someone who’s sick’ or ‘Look for an undiscovered talent in yourself.’ ”

“What a great idea!” Rachel exclaimed.
“I’m sitting here thinking I should have that box. I’d like to do something to surprise myself—or to surprise others, for that matter. Rachel, I’m so predictable.”

“This from the woman who just made last-minute reservations to fly to Florida for Christmas.”

“The first unexpected thing I’ve done in twenty years.”


“I know! Let’s do something crazy now,” she suggested. “How about a slice of pie?”

“Want to split?”

“Nope. I want my own. And I’m having…pumpkin!”

“Whoa,” Rachel teased. “Let’s not go completely crazy too fast. At least forego the whipped cream.”

“Nope. I’m having pumpkin, and I want whipped cream.”

“All righty then.”

“Fasten your seat belt, Rach, because I’m having a cappuccino with it.”

The waiter stepped up beside them, and Rachel smiled at him. “You might want to call security. I don’t even know this woman. She’s absolutely…zany.”

Ooh, ZANY. There’s a word I wish Zan would have used in one of his Cassie puzzles.


Boston was dusted with snow, with temperature in the upper twenties, when Cassie got on the plane bound for Tampa International Airport. She’d had a hard time finding clothes to pack for a 50-degree difference in weather, but she figured she could pick up a few things once she arrived. And there was always the array of clothes still hanging in her Florida closet. If only she could remember what was there.

After collecting one suitcase and one dog at baggage claim, Cassie took care of her car rental and was on her way. Sophie claimed her spot in the back seat and lay down, her little front paws crossed in front of her, swiping Cassie’s hand with one affectionate lick as she belted her in. Sophie appeared just as prim and ladylike as a dog with floppy pointed ears could be, in that moment anyway.

Never mind the laps she’d taken around the backyard that morning, figure eights at 150 miles per hour, with her new plush reindeer toy hanging out the side of her mouth. Not so ladylike then. More like a commercial for doggie NASCAR.

At last Cassie climbed in behind the wheel and was on her way.

She took a wrong turn from the airport somehow and ended up driving miles out of the way and across a bridge above the deep green Gulf, eventually stopping in St. Petersburg on the other side.

A gas station attendant pointed her back again, in the direction of Tampa and across what he called the Howard Frankland Bridge, and he sold her a map that would lead her to Holiday from there.

She hadn’t been to Florida in such a long time, and Zan had always been the driver back then, so not much of anything looked more than marginally familiar all the way out to New Port Richey.

All that changed, however, when she rounded the curve of the road and finally saw the disfigured little sign that announced with no pomp or circumstance at all the entrance to Holiday, Florida.

Around the battered golf course, past the neighbor’s very memorable mailbox shaped like a large trout…then two bumps and a pothole later, she pulled into her driveway and turned off the ignition.

Oh, there they are, she thought, dropping her head back against the headrest with a laugh. Those ugly plastic flamingos, leaning sideways in the garden.

Zan had picked them up at a local grocery store and they’d argued all the way home about displaying them, finally agreeing to leave them in the backseat of the car until they could come to some understanding. The next morning, however, Cassie had taken her coffee out on the deck—and there they were, poking out of the enormous planters on either side of the wooden dock leading out to the Anclote River.

After that, the flamingos had become pawns in an ongoing game. Cassie had tossed them into the trash can at the side of the house one morning, and that afternoon they’d turned up on the front lawn. Once she’d hidden them in the shrubs at the back of the house, but the following morning at first morning light, there they were again, peeking through the bedroom window. On their last visit to Holiday, Cassie had noticed the horrible things poking out of the tall flowers in the garden as she and Zan pulled out of the drive and headed for the airport, just where the birds were still.

She’d just pumped the door handle and her feet hadn’t even flattened against terra firma when she heard it.

“Cas–sie? Hun–ny bunny? Is that you?”

Millicent headed across the street toward her, toddling at a speed that defied her seventy years, reflecting the sun with her neon-pink bike shorts and matching visor and the fanny pack around her waist plop-plop-plopping against her hip with each eager step.

“Hi, Millicent.”

“Oh, hunny bunny!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s been such a long time.” Inching her arms around Cassie’s waist, Millicent rocked her from side to side to side. Squirming her way out of the embrace reminded Cassie of peeling out of a tight, wet bathing suit.

“We were all so sorry to hear about Zan,” she said as Cassie popped open the trunk.

“Thank you.”

“Are you all right? Doing okay? I stopped Frank Mitchell a few weeks ago when he was over here doing the yard work for you, but he said he didn’t have any idea what your plans were or when you’d be coming back. We were all so worried, hunny. It was such a loss, wasn’t it? He was such a prankster, your Zan. I’ll just never forget him.”

“Thank you,” Cassie managed, reaching into the back seat and releasing Sophie from the belt.

“Sophie!” Millicent sang as the dog leaped out of the car. Sophie excitedly circled the old woman twice and then ran for a patch of grass. Once she’d done her business, Sophie kicked up some sand from the grass and started to run. As usual, she looped around the palm tree and back again, mapping out one large figure eight across the lawn. What was it about that dog and the number eight?

“Sophie’s very excited to be back,” Millicent observed as they watched her.

“I think the dog is a little loopy, if you want to know the truth.”

Millicent chuckled as Sophie tore off across the yard again, pausing at the top of her 8-curve to fly into the air and twist around for no apparent reason, as if catching some invisible Frisbee.

Yanking the suitcases from the trunk and snapping up the handles, Cassie said, “It was a long trip, Millicent. Could we catch up tomorrow?”

“Oh, of course we can. Of course. I’m on my way to meet the girls for miniature golf, but can I bring you over some supper a little later? Something you can just heat up? You won’t feel like going out to the market.”

“That’s so sweet of you, but I thought I’d just order a pizza.”

“Oh, you know they don’t make pizza down here like they do up North,” Millicent objected, wrinkling up her nose and shaking her head. “You don’t want a local pizza.”

“I really do,” Cassie said and laughed. “Call me crazy, but I’ve actually been looking forward to it.”

“Well, if you’re sure. Are you sure, bunny?”

“I’m sure. But thank you, Millicent. It’s nice to see you again.”

The woman didn’t move a muscle to leave, so Cassie pulled the suitcases along behind her and headed for the front door.

“We can give you a ride to church on Sunday, if you’d like,” Millicent called after her. “There’s a scrambled egg breakfast in the rec hall after.”

Cassie nodded. She’d almost forgotten the sweet little church on the border of town. She and Zan always looked forward to visiting. The pastor was young and enthusiastic, and he had a hand in providing his congregation with a more active social life than an A-list Hollywood crowd, minus the drugs and alcohol, of course. But Cassie hadn’t been too interested in attending church in the last year. Something about walking in alone and sitting there with that big scarlet W on her chest.

Widow. The strangest word in the English language.

Cassie turned the key in the lock and then waved at Millicent.

Sophie flew past her as she tugged the luggage inside, and the collie had sniffed her way through every room in the house before Cassie even closed the door behind them.

Frank had promised to stop by that morning to air out the house.

A lovely cross-breeze between the large window in the living room and the open, screened-in glass doors leading out to the deck told her he’d kept his word. Cassie sighed as she stood in front of the screen and looked out toward the river beyond the wooden dock. She felt a bit like she was standing in the middle of a spot she’d only dreamed about once upon a time. Her home in Boston, her administrative job at the law firm, learning to manage on her own: these had become the things her life was made of. The Holiday house was foreign to her now and yet strangely familiar and comforting at the same time.

A brown anole lizard glided across the deck and stopped at the other side of the screen door, the reddish sack beneath its little reptilian throat pumping. She took an instinctive step back from the screen and then chuckled. Cassie recalled when she’d come to Florida and seen one of the creatures for the first time. She’d screeched when it sped across the patio floor near her foot, and the ruckus drew out several of the neighbors. She’d been mortified when they explained to her that an anole was as common in this setting as a lightning bug would be up North.

“It’s part of the fabric of Southern living,” Zan had assured her.

“Nothing to be afraid of.”

That might have been comforting if the news that evening hadn’t highlighted another aspect of Southern living with a story about a three-foot lizard of some kind standing guard on a local’s patio. Cassie recalled that she hadn’t been able to sleep all night.

When the lizard on the other side of the screen door suddenly sprinted into action, Cassie jumped, her distant memories shattering as she backed away from the door. Even reminding herself that she was fifty-five years old—not five—and she probably looked like Godzilla to the tiny thing, she still couldn’t shake off the shiver that ran up her spine and tingled the top of her head. Little lizards running around wherever they wanted to go, well, that was just wrong somehow. Like so many other things about Holiday, Florida, it made the place seem like a primitive foreign country to her, and Cassie was quite certain she would never adjust to it.

She grabbed the handle on her suitcase and tugged it behind her down the hall and into the master bedroom. The moment she stepped through the doorway, the past was there to meet her once again, engulfing her like a torrential wind and carrying the whisper of Zan’s laughter around her into a spun shell of memories. Cassie folded in half and collapsed to the edge of the bed, still gripping the pull handle extended from her luggage.

Sophie hopped up on the bed beside her.

“No, Soph. Get down.”

The dog reluctantly jumped to the floor but cozied up to Cassie’s leg and planted her chin on her knee. The way she looked up at Cassie, those big golden brown eyes wide and glassy, it sort of seemed like Zan’s dog was missing him at that moment, too.

She pulled Sophie’s favorite toys from the zippered pocket of her suitcase and tossed them toward the large round doggie bed in the corner. Sophie chased them and moved from one to the other. She couldn’t seem to decide between the reindeer, the squeaky ball, and the floppy dog.

Cassie shook the nostalgia from her head, nudged the suitcase toward the closet, and popped to her feet. “Dinner,” she said out loud.

Sophie grabbed the ball with the corner of her long, pointy collie mouth and then tucked the reindeer into the other side, squeaking them both incessantly as she hurried down the hallway and into the kitchen in pursuit of Cassie. Cassie was scanning the business cards anchored to the freezer door with funny little ceramic magnets. She plucked off the brightly colored mermaid Zan had bought at the Weeki Wache Springs mermaid show, a bizarre little roadside attraction that drew curious patrons from far and wide, and she took down the card it anchored.

A Pizza Holiday was a little hole-in-the-wall at one of the strip malls on the edge of the small town—a place she never would have considered frequenting in Boston—but Zan had insisted on it the afternoon they closed on the Holiday house. At the local establishment, they’d discovered an unexpected chef specialty called “The Popeye,” a concoction of spinach, feta cheese, mushrooms, and sausage that had them coming back for more every time they returned to Florida.

“A Pizza Holiday, where every meal with us is like an Italian holiday. How can I help you?”

“That’s a mouthful to have to say when you answer the phone,” Cassie commented.

“Yeah, my dad owns the place. It’s not like I have a choice,” the girl returned grimly.


“Yes? And who’s this?”

“This is Cassie Constantine, Vanessa. The last time I saw you, you were folding napkins at the counter and your feet didn’t even touch the floor. How old are you now?”

“I’m sixteen,” she replied. “Are you guys down for the Christmas break? You haven’t been in for a long time.”

You guys. Cassie’s heart pinched.

“Well, I am. My husband passed away.”

“He did? I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “I think I’d like to get a pizza delivered.”

“The Popeye?”


“Large with extra sausage?”

“Oh, no. Small, please. With extra spinach.”

“And would you like—”

“Vanessa, hang on, please.”

The earsplitting grinding of metal against wood, not to mention Sophie’s insistent barking, forced Cassie to the screen door, where she peered outside just in time to see a large pontoon boat take off the end of her dock.

“I’m sorry,” she said into the phone. “I’ll have to call you back.”

Cassie closed her phone and set it on the table behind her before rushing outside and jogging halfway down the dock, her barking dog at her heels. Cassie had forgotten how colorful everything was in Holiday, including the residents. But her immediate reminder stood at the edge of the boat in the person of Georgette Hootz, with her shocking orange hair and lipstick to match, shielding her eyes with a fuschia golf-gloved hand as she waved at Cassie with unusual vigor.

“Cassie? Is that you? George, look, it’s Cassie Constantine.”


“Zan’s wife.”


“Oh, you old coot.”

Georgette hoisted herself over the side and scaled the broken dock before taking off at a full waddling run toward her. Sophie met her at the end of the dock and sniffed at her knees the whole way up the platform.

“Hi, little Sophie. How have you been?” As Georgette headed for Cassie, full steam ahead, she exclaimed, “So sorry about your dock! George has to have cataract surgery next month, and he just can’t see like he used to.”

“Is anyone hurt?” Cassie asked her.

“Oh, we’re dandy. It’s just the dock that needs a medic.”

Cassie swallowed a gulp of unspoken retort just as Georgette reached her and hugged her so tightly that her air pushed up past her ribs and forced out a groan.

“We were so sorry to hear about Zan,” she cried, as she shook Cassie from side to side. “He was such a good man. I asked George, ‘Whatever is Cassie going to do without him?’ Are you doing all right, dear? Have you got things in order for yourself?”

“I’m working on it.”

Over Georgette’s shoulder, Cassie watched as a lean but muscular man with sun-kissed chestnut hair—definitely not George Hootz!—stepped up from the pontoon over the broken edge of the dock. He was wearing knee-length khaki linen shorts and a bright blue knit shirt, tan deck shoes, and dark, rectangular sunglasses. After a moment, he turned back to the boat and offered a hand, pulling George up to the dock alongside him.

Cassie lost her breath again, but not because Georgette had squeezed it out of her.

“Who’s that with George?” she asked as the man leaned over and tickled Sophie on top of her head.

Georgette released Cassie and turned around with a smile. “That’s Richard,” she said. Then she cranked up that frantic wave of hers. “He bought the Kleinbeck place a few blocks over from us a couple of years ago. Widower, addicted to chasing those tiny white balls around on the golf course. Naturally. I suppose no man comes to Florida without golf on his mind. Oh, and he’s a ballroom dancer like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Sorry about your dock,” George offered, scratching his silver head as he approached with Richard. “Seems a little farther out into the canal than I remembered.”

“George Hootz, that dock did not move since the last time we were out here,” Georgette chastised him. “You old coot.”

“Hen,” he returned, and Georgette waved him off with a sour grimace.

“Richard Dillon, meet Cassie Constantine.”

He lowered his glasses to reveal blue eyes that actually sparkled.

His chiseled features narrowed at the jawline, and he had those charming Dennis Quaid sort of parentheses on either side of his grin, making it seem like his entire face smiled right along with his lips. Cassie thought it odd that those simple parentheses made her heart beat a little faster.

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Is everyone all right?” she asked as she shook his hand.

“Well, my bursitis has been acting up this week,” George replied.

“Usually means we’re looking for some rain in the forecast.”

“That’s not what she’s asking, George. She means from the collision with the dock.”

Richard caught Cassie’s eye, grinned, and then replaced his sunglasses.

“Oh, that,” George answered back. “It was just a little tap. That dock hadda be pretty rotten to crumble the way it did.”

A strange sucking sound drew their attention just then, and they all turned back toward the canal. Just about the time Cassie realized that the boat seemed lower, it rocked back and forth and then moved lower still.

“What in the world—?”

Sophie raced to the edge of the dock and let out a few concerned barks, but before any of the humans could say another word, the pontoon boat with the bright yellow striped awning disappeared beneath the water with a belch.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Silent Governess - Prologue and Chapter 1

The Silent Governess

Bethany House; Original edition (January 1, 2010)


For years, I could not recall the day without a smoldering coal of remorse burning within me. I tried to bury the memory deep in the dark places of my mind, but now and again something would evoke it—a public house placard, a column of figures, a finely dressed gentleman—and I would wince as the memory appeared and then scuttled away, like a silverfish under the door....

The day began wonderfully well. My mother, father, and I, then twelve, rode into Chedworth together and spent a rare afternoon as a harmonious family. We viewed many fine prospects and toured the Roman ruins, where my mother met by chance an old friend. I thought it a lovely outing and remember feeling as happy as I had ever been—for my mother and father seemed happy together as well.

The mood during the journey home was strained, but I chalked it up to fatigue and soon fell asleep in the gig, my head lolling against my mother's shoulder.

When we arrived home, I remained in such buoyant spirits that when my father dully proclaimed himself off to the Crown and Crow, I offered to go along, although I had not done so in many months.

He muttered, "Suit yourself," and turned without another word. I could not account for his sudden change of mood, but then, when had I ever?

I had been going with him to the Crown and Crow since I was a child of three or four. He would set me upon its high counter, and there I would count to a thousand or more. When one has mastered one hundred, are not two, five, and nine so much child's play? By the age of six, I was ciphering sums to the amusement and amazement of other patrons. Papa would present two or three figures and there before me, as if on a glass slate, I would see the totals of their columns.

"What is forty-seven and fifty-five, Olivia?"

Instantly the numbers and their sum would appear. "One zero two, Papa."

"One hundred two. That is right. That's my clever girl."

As I grew older, the equations grew more difficult, and I began to wonder if the weary travelers and foxed old men would even know if I had ciphered correctly. But my father did, I was certain, for he was nearly as quick with numbers as I.

He also took me with him to the race clubs—even once to the Bibury Racecourse—where he placed wagers entrusted to him by men from Lower Coberly all the way to Foxcote. Beside him, with his black book in my small hands, I noted the odds, the wins and losses, mentally subtracting my father's share before inscribing the payouts. I found myself caught up in the excitement of the race, the smells of meat pasties and spiced cider, the crowds, the shouts of triumph or defeat, and the longed-for father-daughter bond.

Mother had always disliked my going with Papa to the races and public house, yet I was loath to refuse him altogether, for I was hungry for his approval. When I began attending Miss Cresswell's School for Girls, however, I went less often.

In the Crown and Crow that day, being twelve years of age, I was too old to perch upon the high counter. Instead I sat beside my father in the inglenook before the great hearth and drank my ginger beer while he downed ale after ale. The regulars seemed to sense his foul temper and did not disturb us.

Then they came in—a well-dressed gentleman and his son, wearing the blue coat and banded straw hat of a schoolboy. The man was obviously a gentleman of quality, perhaps even a nobleman, and we all sat up the straighter in defense of our humble establishment.

The boy, within a year or two of my own age, glanced at me. Of course we would notice one another, being the only young people in the room. His look communicated disinterest and contempt, or at least that was how I ciphered his expression.

The gentleman greeted the patrons in gregarious tones and announced that they had just visited a lord somebody or other, and were now traveling back toward London to return his son to Harrow's hallowed halls.

My father, cheeks flushed and eyes suddenly bright, turned to regard the boastful gentleman. "A Harrow lad, ey?"

"Just so," the gentleman answered. "Like his old man before him."

"A fine, clever lad, is he?" Papa asked.

A flicker of hesitation crossed the gentleman's face. "Of course he is."

"Not one to be outwitted by a village girl like this, then?" Papa dipped his head toward me, and my heart began to pound. A sickening dread filled my stomach.

The gentleman flicked a look at me. "I should say not."

Father grinned. "Care to place a friendly wager on it?"

This was nothing new. Over the years, many of the regulars had made small wagers on my ability to solve difficult equations. And even fellows who lost would applaud and buy Papa ale and me ginger beer.

The gentleman's mouth twisted. "A wager on what?"

"That the girl can best your boy in arithmetic? They do teach arithmetic at Harrow, I trust?"

"Of course they do, man. It is the best school in the country. In the world."

"No doubt you are right. Still, the girl here is clever. Is she not, folks?" Papa turned to the regulars around the room for support. "Attends Miss Cresswell's School for Girls."

"Miss Cresswell's?" The gentleman's sarcasm sent shivers down my spine. "My, my, Herbert, we had better declare defeat before we begin."

My father somehow retained control of his temper. Even feigned a shrug of nonchalance. "Might make for a diverting contest."

The gentleman eyed him, glass midway to his lips. "What do you propose?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary. Sums, divisions, multiplications. First correct answer wins. Best of three?"

That was when I saw it—the boy's look of studied indifference, of confidence, fell utterly away. In its place pulsed pale, sickly fear.

The gentleman glanced at his son, then finished his drink. "I don't find such sport amusing, my good man. Besides, we must be on our way. Long journey ahead." He placed his glass and a gold guinea on the counter.

"I don't blame you," Papa rose and placed his own guinea on the bar. "A bitter pill, bein' bested by a girl."

"Pu-ppa ..." I whispered. "Don't."

"Well, Herbert, we cannot have that, can we." The gentleman poked his son's shoulder with his walking stick. "What do you say, for the honour of Harrow and the family name?"

And in the stunned dread with which son regarded father, I saw the rest. I recognized the fear of disappointing a critical parent, the boy's eagerness for any morsel of approbation, and his absolute terror of the proposed contest. Clearly he was no scholar in mathematics, a fact he had perhaps tried desperately to conceal— and which was now about to be exposed in a very public and very mortifying manner.

"Excellent," my father said. "Ten guineas to the winner?"

"Per equation? Excellent," the gentleman parroted shrewdly. "Thirty guineas total. Even I am skilled in ciphering, you see."

I swallowed. My father had not meant thirty guineas. Did not have thirty guineas, as the gentleman must have known.

My father did not so much as blink. "Very well. We shall start out easy, shall we? First with the correct answer wins."

He enunciated two three-digit numbers, and the sum was instantly before me and out of my lips before conscious thought could curtail it.

I glanced at Herbert. A trickle of sweat rolled languidly from his hairline to his cheek.

"Come, Herbert, there is no need to act the gentleman in this instance. You may dispense with ‘ladies first' this time, ey?"

Herbert nodded, his eyes focused on my father's mouth as though willing the next numbers to be simple ones, as though to control them with his stare.

Papa gave a division problem, not too difficult, and again the answer painted the air before me.

And again the young man did not speak.

Go on, I silently urged. Answer.

"Come, Herbert," his father prodded, features pinched. "We haven't all night."

"Would you mind repeating the numbers, sir?" Herbert asked weakly, and my heart ached for him.

I felt my father's pointed look and heard his low prompting, "Out with it, girl."

"Six hundred forty-four," I said apologetically, avoiding the gazes of all.

Murmurs of approval filled the room.

The gentleman stood, eyes flashing. "There is no way the girl could figure that in her head. I see what this is. A trick, is it not? No doubt we are not the first travelers to be taken in by your trained monkey who has memorized your every equation."

I cringed, waiting for my father to rise, fists first, and strike the man. Cheaters infuriated him, and many was the time I'd seen him fly into a rage over a thrown game or race. Yes, he'd take his share of other men's winnings, but not a farthing more.

"Let us see how she fares if I propose the question," the gentleman demanded. "And the first correct answer wins the entire wager."

Would my father abide such an insulting insinuation?

The proprietor laid a hand on his arm, no doubt fearing for the preservation of his property. "Why not, man?" he quietly urged. "Let Olivia prove herself the clever girl we all know she is."

My father hesitated.

"Unless you are afraid?" the gentleman taunted.

"I am not afraid."

My father's eyes bore into the face of the proud traveler, while I could not tear mine from the son's. Such humiliation and shame were written there. It was one thing for a girl to be clever—it was unexpected. A parlor trick, however honestly come by. But for a son, his father's pride, and no doubt heir, to be proven slow, to be made a fool by a girl? I shuddered at the thought of the piercing reprimands or cold rejection that would accompany him on the long journey ahead. And perhaps for the rest of his life.

The gentleman eyed the hop-boughed beams as he thought, then announced his equation. No doubt one he knew the answer to, likely his acreage multiplied by last year's average yield. Something like it, at any rate. Against the background of the boy's pale face and bleak green eyes, the numbers appeared before me, but lacked their usual clarity. Instead they swayed and slithered like that old silverfish and slid beneath the door.

The young man's eyes lit up. He had likely hit upon the number by memory rather than calculation, but as soon as he proclaimed the answer, I knew he was correct. The relief and near-jubilation on his face buoyed me up for one second. The answering smile and shoulder-clap from his father, one second more. Then the disapproval emanating from my own father's eyes pulled me around, and I saw the terrible truth of what I had done. Too late, I saw. Never again would he take me with him. Never again would he call me his clever girl, nor even Olivia.

The gentleman picked up my father's guinea from the bar. "I will take only one guinea, and let that be a lesson to you. I shall leave the rest to cover your debts to the others you have no doubt tricked over the years." Turning with a flourish, the gentleman placed a gloved hand on his boy's shoulder and propelled him from the room.

I watched them go, too sickened to be relieved that all I had cost my father was one guinea. For I knew I had cost him far more—the respect of every person in that room.

Slowly I became aware of their hooded looks, their unconscious shrinking back from us. Now they would believe the traveler's accusation that my ability had been a trick all along. All their applause and ale and wagers accepted dishonestly. In his eyes—in theirs— they had all been made fools by us. By me.

By my silence.

Chapter 1

It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake.
—Geoffrey ChauCer

Twelve years later
November 1, 1815

H eart pounding with fear and regret, Olivia Keene ran as though hellhounds were on her heels. As though her very life depended upon her escape.

Fleeing the village, she ran across a meadow, bolted over the sheep gate, caught her skirt, and went sprawling in the mire. The bundle in her cape pocket jabbed against her hip bone. Ignoring it, she picked herself up and ran on, looking behind to make sure no one followed. Ahead lay Chedworth Wood.

The warnings of years echoed through her mind. "Don't stray into the wood at night." Wild dogs stalked that wood, and thieves and poachers camped there, with sharp knives and sharper eyes, looking for easy game. A woman of Olivia's four-and-twenty years knew better than to venture into the wood alone. But her mother's cries still pulsed in her ears, drowning out the old voice of caution. The danger behind her was more real than any imagined danger ahead.

Shivers of fear prickling over her skin, she hurled herself into the outstretched arms of the wood, already dim and shadowy on the chill autumn evening. Beneath her thin soles, dry leaves crackled. Branches grabbed at her like gnarled hands. She stumbled over fallen limbs and underbrush, every snapping twig reminding her that a pursuer might be just behind, just out of sight.

Olivia ran until her side ached. Breathing hard, she slowed her pace. She walked for what seemed like an hour or more and still hadn't reached the other side of the wood. Was she traveling in a circle? The thought of spending the night in the quickly darkening wood made her pick up her pace once more.

She tripped on a tangle of roots and again went sprawling. She heard the crisp rip of fabric. A burning scratch seared her cheek. For a moment she lay as she was, trying to catch her breath.

The pain of the fall broke through the dam of shock, and the hot tears she had been holding back poured forth. She struggled up and sat against a tree, sobbing.

Almighty God, what have I done?

A branch snapped and an owl screeched a warning to his mate. Fear instantly stifled her sobs. Hairs prickling at the back of her neck, Olivia searched the moonlit dimness with wide eyes.

Eyes stared back.

A dog, wiry and dark, stood not twenty feet away, teeth bared. In silent panic, Olivia scratched the ground around her, searching for something to use as a weapon. The undergrowth shook and the ground pulsed with a galloping tread. Two more dogs ran past, one clenching something round and white in its jaws. The head of a sheep?

The first dog turned and bounded after the other two, just as Olivia's fingers found a stout stick. She gripped it tightly, wishing for a moment that she still held the fire iron. Shivering in revulsion,

Olivia thrust aside the memory of its cold, hard weight. She listened for several tense seconds. Hearing nothing more, she rose, stick firmly in hand, and hurried through the wood, hoping the dogs wouldn't follow her trail.

* * *

The moon was high above the treetops when she saw it. The light of a fire ahead. Relief. Wild animals were afraid of fire, were they not? She tentatively moved nearer. She had no intention of joining whoever had camped there—perhaps a family of gypsies or a gentlemen's hunting party. Even if the rumors of thieves and poachers were stuff and nonsense, she would not risk making her presence known. But she longed for the safety the fire represented. She longed, too, for its warmth, for the November night air stole mercilessly through her cape and gown. Perhaps if another woman were present, Olivia might ask to warm herself. She dared move a little closer, stood behind a tree and peered around it. She saw a firelit clearing and four figures huddled around the flames in various postures of repose. The sound of men talking and jesting reached her.

"Squirrel again tonight, Garbie?" a gravelly voice demanded.

"Unless Croome comes back with more game."

"This time o' night? Not dashed likely."

"More likely he's lyin' foxed in the Brown Dog, restin' his head on Molly's soft pillows."

"Not Croome," another said. "Never knew such a monkish man."

Laughter followed.

Every instinct told Olivia to flee even as she froze where she stood. This was no family, nor any party of gentlemen. Fear slithering up her spine, she turned and stepped away from the tree.

"Wha's that?"

A young man's loud whisper stopped Olivia's retreat. She stood still, afraid to make another sound.

"What's what? I don't hear nofin'."

"Maybe it is Croome."

Olivia took a tentative tiptoe step. Then another. A sticky web coated her face, startling her, and she stumbled over a log onto the ground.

Before she could right herself, the sound of footsteps surrounded her and harsh lamplight blinded her.

"Well, kiss my bonnie luck star," a young man breathed.

Olivia struggled to her feet and pushed down her skirts. She brushed her fallen hair from her face and tried to remain calm.

"Croome's got a mite prettier since we saw 'im last," said a second young man.

Beside him, a bearded hulk glowered down at her. In the harsh, gravelly voice she had first heard, he demanded, "What are ya doin' here?"

Panic shot through her veins. "Na—nothing! I saw your fire and I—"

"Looking for some company, were ya?" The big man's leer chilled her to the marrow. "Well, ya come to the right place— hasn't she, lads?"

"Aye," another agreed.

The big man reached for her, but Olivia recoiled. "No, you misunderstand me," she said. "I simply lost my way. I don't want—"

"Oh, but we do want." His gleaming eyes were very like those of the wild dog.

The stout stick she had been carrying was on the ground, where it had landed when she fell. She lunged for it, but the man grabbed her from behind. "Where d'ya think yer going? Nowhere soon, I'd wager."

Olivia cried out, but did manage to get her hand around the stick as he hauled her up.

"Let go of me!"

The burly man laughed. Olivia spun in his arms and swung the stick like a club. With a thwack, it caught the side of his head. He yelled and covered the wound with his hands.

Olivia scrambled away, but two other men grabbed her arms and legs, wrestled the stick from her, and bore her back to the fire.

"You all right, Borcher?" the youngest man asked, voice high.

"I will be. Which is more'n I can say for her."

"Please!" Olivia implored the men who held her. "Release me, I beg of you. I am a decent girl from Withington."

"My brother lives near there," the youngest man offered.

"Shut up, Garbie," Borcher ordered.

"Perhaps I have met your brother," she said desperately. "What is his na—?"

"Shut yer trap!" Borcher charged forward, hand raised.

"Borcher, don't," young Garbie urged. "Let her go."

"After the hoyden hit me? Not likely." Borcher grabbed her roughly, pinning both arms to her sides with one long, heavy arm and pressing her back against a tree.

She tried in vain to stomp on his foot, but her kid slippers were futile against his boots. "No!" she shouted. "Someone help me. Please!"

His free hand flashed up and clasped her jaw, steely fingers clamping her cheeks in a vise that stilled her shouts. She wrenched her head to the side and bit down on his thumb as hard as she could.

Borcher yelled, yanked his hand away, and raised it in a menacing fist.

Olivia winced her eyes shut, bracing herself for the inevitable blow.

Fwwt. Smack. Something whizzed by her captor's ear and shuddered into the tree above her. She opened her eyes as Borcher whirled his head around. Across the clearing, at the edge of the firelight, a man stood atop a tree stump, bow and arrow poised.

"Let her go, Phineas," the man drawled in an irritated voice.

"Mind yer own affairs, Croome." Borcher raised his fist again.

Another arrow whooshed by, slicing into the tree bark with a crack.

"Croome!" Borcher swore.

"Next time, I shall aim," the man called Croome said dryly. Though he appeared a slight, older man, cool authority steeled his words.

Borcher released Olivia with a hard shove. The back of her head hit the tree, where long arrows still quivered above her. Even the jarring pain in her skull did not diminish the relief washing over her. In the flickering firelight, she looked again at her rescuer, still perched on the stump. He was a gaunt man of some sixty years in a worn hat and hunting coat. Ash grey hair hung down to his shoulders. A game bag was slung over one of them. The bow he held seemed a natural extension of his arm.

"Thank you, sir," she said.

He nodded.

Glimpsing the stout stick by the light of the forgotten lamp, Olivia bent to retrieve it. Then turned to make her escape.

"Wait." Croome's voice was rough but not threatening. He stepped down from the stump, and she waited as he approached. His height—tall for a man of his years—and limping gait surprised her. "Take the provisions I brought for these undeserving curs."

She accepted a quarter loaf of bread and a sack of apples. Her stomach rumbled on cue. But when he extended a limp hare from his game bag, she shook her head.

"Thank you, no. This is more than enough."

One wiry eyebrow rose. "To make up for what they did to you—and would have done?"

Olivia stiffened. She shook her head and said with quiet dignity, "No, sir. I am afraid not." She handed back the bread and apples, turned, and strode smartly from the clearing.

His raspy chuckle followed her. "Fool ..."

And she was not certain if he spoke of her or of himself.

Olivia walked quickly away by the moonlight filtering through the autumn-bare branches, the stick outstretched before her like a blindman's cane. She stayed alert for any hint of being followed but heard nothing save the occasional to-wooo of a tawny owl or the feathery scurrying of small nocturnal creatures. Eventually her fear faded into exhaustion and hunger. Perhaps I should not have been so proud, she thought, her stomach chastising her with a persistent ache.

Finally, unable to trudge along any further, she curled into a ball beside a tree. She searched her cape pockets for her gloves, but only one remained—the other lost in the wood, no doubt. She again felt the firm bundle in her pocket but did not bother to examine it in the dark. Shivering, she drew her hooded cape close around herself and covered her thin slippers with handfuls of leaves and pine needles for warmth. Images of her mother's terrified eyes and of a man's body lying facedown on the dark floor tried to reassert themselves, but she pushed them away, escaping into the sweet forgetfulness of sleep.